Judge J. Michael Luttig resigned Wednesday from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to accept a job as senior vice president and general counsel for Boeing Co.

Luttig, a conservative judge, had been named to the federal bench former President Bush in 1991 and mentioned last year as a possible nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This opportunity just came out of the blue," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his Northern Virginia court chambers. "I was not looking to leave the court, and did not expect to leave the court. After considering it, it seemed an opportunity we could not forego."

Luttig said his decision had nothing to do with being passed over for the Supreme Court nomination.

White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday, "The president regrets the loss of Judge Luttig's distinguished service on the federal judiciary, but respects his decision and wishes him and his family the best."

Luttig was 37 when he was appointed to the 4th Circuit, becoming the youngest federal appeals court judge in the country. The Richmond-based appeals court is widely viewed as the most conservative in the nation.

Luttig previously served as an aide to U.S. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and as an assistant counsel in the Reagan White House. He clerked for Burger and for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia when Scalia was a judge on the federal appellate court in Washington.

He also helped Justice Clarence Thomas, another Bush favorite, through his contentious confirmation hearing. Luttig delivered a eulogy at Burger's funeral and was a groomsman at the wedding of new Chief Justice John Roberts.

William Wilkins, chief judge of the 4th Circuit, praised Luttig for thoughtful and timely opinions during his years on the federal bench, and for his vigorous questioning of lawyers arguing before the court.

"He always did his homework beforehand. He was as familiar with the record as the lawyers were. He could engage and really probe into issues before the court," Wilkins said.

At Boeing, he will succeed Douglas G. Bain, who announced his plans to retire July 1. Luttig and his wife, Elizabeth, have a daughter and a son. The family will relocate to the Chicago area.